Graduate Students and Writing | Academic Writing

author, blog, businesswomanSome book bloggers talk about being in reading slumps, but literature students can’t afford to be in reading slumps. We are forced to read all the time even though that doesn’t always help our productivity. We read multiple books at the same time, and we get hardly a break between reads to collect our thoughts. There, inevitably, comes a time when we have to choose between reading for class and reading and researching for final papers.

I am taking four courses this semester. I am assigned at least three books a week, and I am now beginning to do the research for a few of them. That means that I have to read secondary source material as well as the relevant critical theory.

I often envy PhD students in the UK who don’t take classes. They spend the entire 3 years of their PhD working on their thesis. However, I understand the value in knowing the French canon so that I can teach general literature courses.

Ironically, graduate students in the humanities don’t get nearly enough writing practice throughout the year. Most of the writing comes at the very end of each semester. Students are asked to produce well-written papers after months of minimal writing.

I played the classical guitar for most of my childhood. I hated practicing, so I usually practiced the night before my weekly lessons. A few times a year, I performed in student recitals. I would binge-practice a couple weeks before each recital. I would certainly have been a more accomplished musician if I had practiced daily.

Graduate students treat writing the way I treated classical music. They get very little practice during most of the semester, and then they’re asked to perform for all their classes during the few weeks at the start of December.

Small wonder then that so many ABD (all but dissertation) students suffer from writer’s block. They are not accustomed to writing on a regular basis, let alone for 6 hours a day.

Most of the last month leading up to the end of the semester is spent doing research for my final papers. I probably spent a week to a week-and-a-half writing the darn things.

I am not about to tell graduate programs how they should conduct their literature courses. I don’t even know what I would change. I have done graduate work at different institutions, so my observation about graduate writing is certainly not exclusive to the program I’m currently in. All American graduate students face this problem of trying to balance reading and writing throughout the semester.

I have a few ideas that I might try in the next few weeks to think on paper about the texts I’m studying. Anything is better than nothing. I will most likely not share my ideas on this blog for privacy reasons, but I will let you know how it all goes.

Graduate students don’t often think of themselves as writers. Indeed, they hardly write during the semester to feel the need to call themselves writers. We need to start calling ourselves writers. Someday, we will write a dissertation and (hopefully) send out book manuscripts for publication.

If you are a graduate student in the humanities, I encourage you to start thinking of yourself as a writer. If thinking of yourself as a writer makes you feel like an impostor, start writing short pieces a few times a week. You don’t have to go public with your writing, but you can’t say you’re a writer if you don’t write.

I certainly feel like an impostor. That’s why I started this daily writing habit. It’s hard coming up with post ideas. I don’t know what I will do in December. But, I do feel less intimidated by the idea of writing than I did in October.


Aiming for 80%

Hank Green, one of the two Vlog Brothers, recently made a video answering a question he often gets from fans: “What is the secret to your productivity?” I have never read a John Green book nor am I subscribed to the vlogbrothers channel. I found the video while searching for motivational content on YouTube.

Hank is highly productive because he doesn’t aim for perfection. Instead, he aims for a B (80%) and refuses to try for a higher “grade”.  Perfectionists have low productivity because they are never satisfied with anything they attempt. A novelist who aims at perfection may never get past the first paragraph.

I think Hank’s advice is excellent! As a PhD student, I never have enough time to do everything that I’m assigned. I have already completed a Master’s, so I know from experience that you don’t need to read every book with 100% concentration. Some books (namely the books you choose to write your term papers on or the ones that appear on your Master’s exam) are more important than others. You struggle to keep your head above water.

Unfortunately, I am a perfectionist when it comes to writing term papers. I write a paragraph in the time most students take to write a draft. (Ok, I’m exaggerating, but only a little.) I want the first draft to be a masterpiece. I would be more productive if I didn’t aim for perfection in the first draft. Subsequent drafts would be much easier to produce, and my 80% would be easier to attain.

While it’s true that an 80% in graduate school is a terrible grade, Hank’s advice is for perfectionists who have set insanely high standards for themselves. After all, even the best graduate paper is not ready for publication. The 80% goal is less intimidating than a goal of 100%. I feel inspired to try new things and start new projects if I have an 80% goal.

Behind Hank’s advice is the unstated assumption that humans like to make excuses for why they haven’t completed a project. “I haven’t written a novel because I am not a good writer”. But no one becomes a good writer without writing, and no one who begins writing is already a good writer. To improve, you have to start somewhere.

Hank doesn’t mention time management, but I think that an 80% goal should be coupled with good time management skills. I can only accept a sloppy first draft if I have enough time to rewrite it. I may be a perfectionist, but I don’t have the best time management. I fool myself into thinking that I can write a perfect paper in a couple days. Waiting until the end adds to my stress because I know that I have to get the paper right the first time.

I am trying to juggle multiple projects at the same time, but I am glad that I started daily blogging. It is teaching me to “just do it”. I feel less intimidated by the idea of writing. The perfectionist mindset has hurt my writing productivity. I don’t write anything when I worry that my posts won’t be perfect. But if the goal is 80%, well, I can do that!

Literary Miscellanea

Literary Miscellanea: The Pleasure of Writing by A.A. Milne

For this Saturday’s Literary Flashback, I would like to share with you an essay A.A. Milne wrote in 1920 concerning the writing process. In it, he discussed what inspired him to write. What I have gleaned from this essay is that while there are many individuals who were involved in the writing profession and who helped publish Milne’s works, the pleasure Milne got from writing did not have much to do with what others thought of his writing. A brand new nib was all he needed to write. In short, it was the process he enjoyed.

“For it was enough for me this morning just to write; with spring coming in through the open windows and my good Canadian quill in my hand, I could have copied out a directory. That is the real pleasure of writing.”

Here is the essay.